What to watch for at gymnastics' Friendship and Solidarity Competition

Uchimura's international return, strong Russians, and strict COVID-19 procedures dominate the conversation around the event.

By Scott Bregman

Gymnastics will be the focus of the sporting world on Sunday, as Japan’s first international sporting event in the COVID-19 era gets underway.

Tokyo will be the setting for the ‘Friendship and Solidarity Competition,’ featuring hosts Japan, plus Russia, China, and the United States.

Defending Olympic all-around champion Uchimura Kohei of Japan, 2019 World all-around champion Nikita Nagornyy and 2019 World all-around bronze medallist Angelina Melnikova, both of Russia, headline the roster.

The competition will feature two teams ('Team Friendship' and 'Team Solidarity') in a mixed-nation format.

Watanabe: ‘The world will be watching us.’

Japan welcoming international athletes for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the planet comes with strict protocols to ensure health and safety.

“The world will be watching us,” said Watanabe Mori, president of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and an IOC member, according to Inside the Games. “While sports also need to live with the unknown virus, we will ensure solutions to the issues one-by-one, and will strive for creating the environment where mental support is provided to gymnasts.”

Those safety protocols included each gymnast having spent the two weeks prior to the event isolated in their home countries while their movement in Tokyo will be limited to the competition venue and hotel. Further, each team arrived via chartered flights and will have their own floor on the hotel. Fans will be on hand for the event, but in a limited capacity.

Uchimura testing scare

Uchimura’s status in the event appeared in jeopardy when Watanabe announced on 29 October that the three-time Olympic gold medallist had tested positive for COVID-19.

"It is an extremely disappointing result but we will continue to observe the situation," said Watanabe at the time. “I know Uchimura was looking forward to this event so we want to go ahead with it however we can - for him, especially.”

But further observation resulted in Uchimura receiving three, consecutive negative tests and the go-ahead to compete. On the eve of the competition the Japanese star shared that he was "convinced" he didn't have the coronavirus, and praised the "thorough" testing procedures.

The event will be his first international outing since he helped his team in a limited capacity to team bronze at the 2018 World Championships in Doha.

Considered by many to be the greatest male gymnast of all time, the 31-year-old has struggled with injuries since defending his Olympic all-around title at Rio 2016. First, an ankle injury forced him out of competition at the 2017 World Championships. Then, shoulder and ankle issues in 2018 and 2019.

Uchimura remains focused on making his Olympic curtain call at home at Tokyo 2020, announcing earlier this year he’d focus on just the horizontal bar moving forward. He made a successful return to competition in September, finishing sixth on his now-specialty event after coming too close on a catch-and-release element and breaking form.

Russian best in attendance

The world’s two best men’s artistic gymnasts in Nagornyy and Dalaloyon highlight an impressive Russian roster. The duo dominated the sport internationally during the past two seasons: Dalaloyan is the 2018 World champ, Nagornyy took European and World titles handily in 2019 and together helped give Russia its first post-Soviet breakup World team title some 13 months ago in Stuttgart.

Neither has competed in the 2020 season after Russia withdrew Nagornyy from March’s American Cup, one of the last major international competitions before the global coronavirus pandemic.

“We will be able to take part in the competition without any worries. I hope that we will all be able to overcome the current situation, and it will change for the better,” Nagorny said ahead of the event, according to Tass.

As 2021 approaches, all eyes will be on Dalaloyan and Nagornyy who remain favourites to take all-around gold at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

On the women’s side, 2019 World all-around bronze medallist Melnikova is also set for her 2020 debut. The All Around star told Olympic Channel last month that despite two months away from the gym, she feels ready to compete.

“Currently, I am fully recovered. I recovered all my programs, I thought it would be harder. But it was rather easy... well, easy is a very relative term,” she said of her current fitness. “Right now everything is well, everything is the same.”

Elena Gerasimova, who won team and balance beam gold medals at last year’s junior world championships, will make her senior debut in Tokyo to round-off a strong Russian challenge.

Others to watch

China is sending up-and-comers Zhang Boheng and Lu Yufei. Zhang finished fifth at the recent Chinese Nationals, highlighted by fourth place finishes on the floor exercise and parallel bars. Lu was fourth in the women’s standings, taking bronze on floor.

2017 World floor exercise champion Yul Moldauer leads the U.S. contingent with fellow 2019 World team member Shane Wiskus. Sophia Butler, Shilese Jones, eMjae Frazier, and Paul Juda complete Team USA’s roster.

Japan’s Teramoto Asuka, whose dream of competing at the Tokyo Olympics seemed dashed by an Achilles tear in February before the Games were postponed, returns to international competition this weekend. According to a roster released by the International Gymnastics Federation, Teramoto plans to compete in all four apparatus after only performing on the uneven bars in September’s All Japan Championships.